And I’m back. Sorry for the hiatus, my July resolution is to get better at frequent posting.

I know I don’t need to tell you that the metro has been a charlie foxtrot since the red line crash on June 22. But let me tell you — it has been nuts.

Because metro’s automation feature seems to be at fault, all trains in the system have been running manually ever since the crash. This means stopping abruptly, maintaining a maximum speed of 35 mph, and keeping a space of several extra minutes in between each train. At some times, red line trains are only running every 10 to 15 minutes. This is unheard of in the realm of mass transit. It is inconvenient to say the least.

The combination of these speed bumps and the hot, sticky weather that translates to hotter, stickier metro stations, is having a profound effect on my commute to and from work. My primary gripe is that the people around me are forgetting their manners, thinking How dare metro inconvenience me, don’t they know how important I am, while failing to realize that everyone else is in the same boat.

There is more shoving, more shouting, more sweat, more disregard for common courtesies like covering your mouth when you cough and offering the seat from under your 25-year-old healthy bum to the feeble old man clinging to life in front of you. Every car is more and more like a can of sardines.

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Throw some tourists into the mix and things get interesting.

On Tuesday I wasn’t feeling so hot when I left work, so I decided to brave the red line and transfer to orange at Metro Center. Since the crash last week, I’ve been getting on and off at Farragut West and walking the mile-ish to and from my office, just to avoid the red line’s neverending issues. But Tuesday was hot, and I wasn’t feeling well, so I sucked it up and took the red line. It was not fun.

I got to Metro Center only to find that there were delays on orange and blue also. Apparently the whole system has gone to crap. When an orange line train finally came about 15 minutes later, there was a large crowd behind me and a packed car in front of me. As I tried to step onto the train, I saw a frantic middle-aged woman launching herself toward me, pushing herself through the brick wall of people, shouting hysterically:

I’M GETTING OFF THIS TRAIN!

I HAVE to get off this train! I can’t TAKE this anymore!!! Get me out of heeerrreeee!!

Meanwhile, a younger woman about my age was screaming at her from further into the train in a high-pitched, nasal whine:

MOM don’t do this! MOMMMM! Get back on the train Mom!!!!

Fine then give me your keys!! AND MY TICKET MOM YOU HAVE MY TICKET!!!

The woman was now straddling the doorway of the train, one foot in the car and one on the platform. The mass of sardines inside the car all had the same thought behind their death stares: Make a decision lady, the sooner we move the sooner this is over.

With some coaxing from a kind stranger, the woman was reassured that it is better to stay on the train now than wait for a less crowded one or take a cab all the way out to Vienna. The daughter was thankful.

Somehow the woman freaked out again at the next stop and pulled the same stunt. At this point people were angry, especially because we got lucky enough to be on a car with no AC. A large man grabbed her by the arm, yanked her back onto the train and held her firmly in his grasp until the doors were closed. We were only at McPherson Square and the daughter was getting increasingly more annoying than the frazzled lady.

I was in the very back of the car, where there are only four sets of seats and very little to hold on to. Because of this, very few people choose to crowd the area. I noticed Ms. Frazzle’s key chain, asked her if she was a Hokie, and convinced her to come stand out of the [larger] crowd with me, and focus on the one corner of the car that was unoccupied by people.

As we discussed our shared love of our alma mater, the things that have come and gone in the years between our stints there, and what we do now (she’s a high school tennis coach, I’m a… commuter), her daughter continued to whine. I learned that the girl graduated from college (not VT) last month and couldn’t help wondering whether she’d learned any social grace while she was there — every time the doors opened she complained (louder than I’ve ever heard someone speak on the metro) to the people waiting on the platform to get onto the train

Sorry guyyyyss there’s no more room on here. Noooo don’t try to get on there’s no more rooom. Ugghhhh

Oh no she did not…

1. There is always more room on the metro.

2. Don’t tell angry, sweaty, tired, commuting people what to do. Especially not when you’re so clearly a tourist. They will get angry with you.

3. Every time you speak you add more unnecessary hot air to the already unbearably hot train. So shut it.

I continued to talk to Ms. Frazzle to keep her calm. She was very intently focused on me, her eyes fixed on mine, her white knuckles grasping the top of a seat, her feet shoulder-width apart and her body assuming an athlete’s ‘ready stance’. We talked about Blacksburg restaurants, Tech’s newest dining halls, the beautiful campus. She asked me the inevitable questions about April 16, which I still can’t believe strangers ask with such candor. She told me she was a DG and a little sister of some fraternity (Do people still care about this when they’re grown? Because I never have and continue not to care in the least bit). She asked what, if I wasn’t Greek, did I even do all those four years. She asked if I do this “metro thing” every day. I said yes, but only to… hey, look at that we’re at my stop (thank goodness).

As I shuffled off the train I wished her luck on the rest of her ride to Vienna and in her attempts to metro the next day. She thanked me profusely for helping her out, the daughter thanked me for talking to her saying, “Sometimes she’s so crazy. She thinks she has claustrophobia.”

I said you’re welcome, good luck, have a good evening, okay great, yup thanks, sure of course, I said you’re welcome…alright, uh huh …

Bless their frazzled, whiny little hearts. I hope they survived Wednesday and didn’t drive in to the National Mall like Ms. Frazzle was threatening to do. I have had my fair share of claustrophobic moments but man did she ever show me up. Somehow I’m not envious of her win.

I know you know, but just in case you missed it – Yesterday around 5 p.m. (you know, peak rush hour), two metro trains on the red line collided in northeast. As of this morning they’ve confirmed nine or seven casualties, depending on who you ask, and many many more injuries.

I can’t even imagine.

I got to Dupont Circle metro station around 5:15 yesterday, and waited 15 minutes for a train. This seems trivial, I know, but they normally show up one right after the other with a maximum of three minutes in between. The platform got more and more crowded as people piled in and the electronic train status signs remained blank.

There were no announcements, no alerts from WMATA, nothing.

So when a phenomenally crowded train showed up after what seemed like an eternity, everyone piled on. It was reminiscent of the failblog video I wrote about once. People were actually holding onto other people to keep them in the train while the doors attempted to close.

At Farragut North, when even more disgruntled, uninformed people tried to cram on, I thought I was about to witness a metro mutiny. There was shouting, lecturing, arguing, shoving, and even more squishing of smaller people (me) into larger people’s arm pits. Sweaty armpits, because the air wasn’t on.

I thought to myself, I might blog about this tomorrow.

It wasn’t until I got to Metro Center that I even heard an announcement that there was “a situation” on the red line, and that you should expect delays in both directions. But there’s always a situation on the red line, so I casually, like every other day, filed onto my orange line home-bound train and opened my book.

When I got above ground and regained cell service I started to get worried. I had numerous texts, missed calls and voice mails from various friends and family. One text from a coworker asked if I made it home okay, “I heard about the red line.”

I got off the train and headed out toward kiss&ride to wait for my shuttle and heard another announcement about a portion of the red line being shut down, shuttle service, delays, etc.

I called my mom, assured her I was fine and asked what in the world was going on. I had an all too familiar pang in my stomach, one that’s lived there for two years now and flares up when it senses disaster. Sirens, triage stations, media, questions, chaos. Casualties.

Yes, it was a freak accident. It was nowhere near where anyone I know rides the metro, and it was nowhere near where I ride it (for which I am exceedingly grateful). But, as such things always do, it opened a limitless box of questions and what ifs. What went wrong? Who’s to blame? Equipment failure or operational error? How do we know other trains on other lines are safe? What if it had been underground?

Being in the dark, literally underground, having no idea what was going on and no source of information, is a metro fault. We’re all used to hearing announcements of delays or single-tracking or “malfunctions” and not finding out what really happened until you get home and check the news. Some metro officials argue that telling passengers, via station and train announcements, the details of what’s really going on could cause panic. I would prefer if I could first have the information and then be able to decide for myself whether or not to panic. I know plenty of people agree.

My heart goes out to the people on those two trains — the ones going into the city for Monday evening fun, and those coming out after a day of work — their families, friends, loved ones. I understand what it’s like to have something mundane and normal, a staple of your everyday life, be disrupted by something traumatic.

This morning I avoided the red line, walked about a mile from Farragut West to work, and was thankful to no longer be on the train or underground. I’m also thankful to those of you who read this blog and checked in yesterday, it’s much appreciated.

For the details, coverage of all angles (of particular interest is the ‘The Probe‘ article), and some intense photos, check out the story at the Washington Post.

Some mornings there’s a song that I think about. I first heard it on my drive to work, when I used to drive for an hour to complete the first leg of my two-hour commute. It’s pop-country. It’s twangy and upbeat. It can be annoying.

But I love this song, because the opening four lines make me laugh (primarily at myself) every time. Not only is it so, so true, but it happens. And I know it doesn’t just happen to me.

It goes like this:

Missed my alarm clock ringin’, woke up telephone screamin’
Boss man singin’ his same old song
Rolled in late about an hour, no cup of coffee, no shower
Walk of shame with two different shoes on

I have never gone to work with two different shoes on, and my boss has never called to inquire about my tardiness, and I’ve never actually been late to work. But the point is: I am always a disheveled bundle of stress scurrying to work in the morning, and this song makes me laugh about it.

In fact, my morning routine upon arriving at work is what most people do before they leave the house in the morning and it usually involves:

1. Put bag at desk, log in to computer.

2. Make a stop at the bathroom to wash hands (metro germs!).

3. Put on make-up in the bathroom, hopefully before saying good morning to anyone.

4. Adjust wardrobe; Add sweater and belt from tote bag stash, remove cat hair from clothing with scotch tape.

5. On rainy or winter days, change out of boots into acceptable shoes.

6.  Return to desk as if I walked into work put together.

Here is a bad video of the song “It Happens” by Sugarland, if you would like to get the full effect. I think it has a good, light-hearted message that is necessary to keep in mind when you get caught up in the nine-to-five-rush-around-look-important-and-busy phenomenon in this area. Enjoy!

Early last week we saw wonderful summer-like weather in the DC area. Monday and Tuesday temperatures reached the mid-90s, my shoulders turned light pink, and the hope that April showers had finally given way to May flowers ran rampant. That is, until something else ran rampant. Ahem, I mean “rampant.”

An apparent almost-pandemic, then definitely pandemic, then a maybe-not-a-pandemic strain of swine flu took over the human race and wiped out populations in mass, including all of Mexico. Oh wait. That’s not true. Some people caught a bad flu, one U.S. citizen died of the bad flu, schools shut down due to students with suspicious symptoms, and Joe Biden encouraged everyone via the Today Show, to avoid public transportation. Thankfully I was watching the Today Show when Biden shared his words of wisdom and doom, which was approximately 15 minutes before I got on the metro.

Amid all the media flurry over the swine flu, I learned a few things:

  1. I should wash my hands frequently. Of course, I already came to my own conclusion that the metro is dirty and I should wash my hands as soon as I get off of it every day. But since news of the swine flu, I’ve gone through even more of my Purell supply than I budgeted this month. Dagger.
  2. I should be afraid of anyone who coughs or sneezes. I was reading on the metro one morning and some poor unsuspecting person sneezed and everyone immediately shot her a death stare of disapproval.
  3. I should be afraid of confined spaces and breathing the air inside them. I’m fairly claustrophobic, so the news media confirming my fear was not good for my mental health. Despite this, I haven’t resorted to wearing a SARS maskbaconator yet.
  4. All this talk about swine flu has made me seriously crave bacon. I also learned that I cannot contract swine flu by eating bacon. I’ll be heading to Wendy’s after work for a Baconator.

So anyway, I set about my normal business on Monday last week, remembering to wash my hands frequently and be cautious of everyone’s snot. Fortunately, the swine flu hysteria had put me in a good enough mood to last the day, because it quickly turned into a prime example of Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

The evening commute was a stress, because the shuttle to our apartment building comes every 30 minutes, and I was on track to barely make it to West Falls Church for the 5:10 shuttle. I rushed down Connecticut to the Dupont Metro, thinking to myself that it’s going to be a long summer if I don’t start hanging out for happy hours in the city until the heat cools off. By the time I was half way down the escalator, half way under ground, I was at least 10 degrees cooler. I was thankful for the shade and the cave-like atmosphere in the metro station and thought that it might actually be a pleasant ride home.

When I switched lines at metro center, it was considerably more muggy and disgusting underground. I told myself to stop complaining because in a mere three minutes I would be on another train with the air conditioning on full blast.

Unfortunately when I got on my orange line train bound for home, not only was there no air conditioning, but there was no air to speak of. All of a sudden I had a mini Joe Biden on my shoulder saying “If you don’t want swine flu you better not breathe! I told you not to ride public transportation!”

Deep breaths, Lauren. Deep breaths.

Of course it was peak evening rush, so the train got ridiculously crowded, and I got increasingly angry at every new person that got on for taking a portion of my air. And as the train emerged from the Ballston underground, it got instantly hotter with the sun’s proximity, and slower for an unknown reason. We had one of those drivers that never tells you what’s going on – he just lets you sit there and ponder the possible reasons the train is stopped and wonder if you’ll make it off alive.

Inch by inch we made our way toward East Falls Church and inch by inch I checked my watch thinking  I could definitely still make the 5:10 shuttle… If we pick up speed right now, I’ll make it… Stopping at East Falls Church shouldn’t take that long… I’m right by the doors, I’ll definitely be up the escalator in a hot second…

And then the driver enlightened us, just when the station was in sight.

Customers, we will hold here until further notice. There is a train offloading at East Falls Church due to a sick customer, we are operating on one track through the station right now. We will move when we get the go-ahead.

Well I still kept my hopes alive of making it to the 5:10 shuttle. I also wondered if the “sick customer” had swine flu. I got really nervous about this possibility when we finally stopped at East Falls Church and everyone who had offloaded the sick person train crammed onto the one I was already crammed onto. It had to be topping 100 degrees on that train and there was less and less air to be breathed. And every one of those new passengers could now possibly be sharing a swine flu infestation with the rest of us. Oh great.

But I turned my thinking toward the silver lining and that was that I had stealthily secured a stance directly in front of the door so I would definitely be the first person off the train. I took great pride in this quick thinking of mine.

The train stopped at West Falls Church at exactly 5:10. I stood facing the doors waiting for them to open when the driver said, “This is West Falls Church, doors opening on the right.” What?! The doors always open on the left at West Falls! Murphy’s Law.

Behind all the people who were lined up at the right side doors, I bolted off the train thinking maybe Phillippe (the shuttle driver) is caught up in a lively conversation with someone on the bus and has forgotten to leave yet. This is completely plausible, it happens all the time.

I basically ran to the escalator, but I was already behind a thick crowd. We shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder in a massive huddle toward the escalator. I was queued up on the left side, lifting my foot to step onto the escalator, when all of a sudden the person in front of me was moving backward toward me. I looked to the top of the escalator and people were grabbing for something to brace themselves with and simultaneously they let out a “Whoaaa.”

It was a rapid reverse.

The escalator had instantaneously switched — while overcrowded with angry, sweaty people — from going up, to going down. I tried to move backward as the people on the escalator were shifting toward me, but the crowd behind me wasn’t catching on and wasn’t moving. Finally, everyone started hiking the escalator as it eventually came to a complete stop. I looked at my watch on the way up: 5:12.

I had to wait for 30 minutes for the 5:40 shuttle in the unbearable heat after breathing little air for the last hour. I didn’t have a book that day, so I was left to sit with my thoughts and consider the possibility that I just contracted the swine flu from seven different people whose snot ranges I was riding in.

I came to two new conclusions while I sat on the curb waiting for the shuttle:

  1. Quit whining, 30 minutes is not that inconvenient.
  2. Always heed Vice President Biden’s advice.

I was on the metro recently (surprise) when it was not particularly crowded — there were no angry people standing, bracing themselves against walls and handrails, but just about every seat had someone in it. With The Great Gatsby in my lap, I was reflecting on how grateful I was to be in a seat facing forward while I was reading. Usually I get metro-sick when I read while facing backward and I’m forced to take a nap instead. I reflect on such things when I’m on a quiet metro.

Then the train stopped. This is not unusual — they stop all the time in between stations. But it stopped in a dark, dark tunnel. The track lighting was non-existent on one side of the track, and the train settled into silence. There was no air blowing loudly through the car. I couldn’t hear the train’s usually gurgling mechanics. Even the kid who wouldn’t stop asking his mother questions quelled his curiosity and his volume.

The setting sent my mind racing through a flashback from a childhood visit to Universal Studios in Florida. I don’t know if it was the whimsy of the book I was reading or if my imagination just felt like taking a joyride, but off it went.

It felt like a theme park ride — not a roller coaster that requires individual seats, shoulder harnesses and liability waivers, but the kind of ride that smells sort of musty and has only a lap bar that rests two feet higher than your thighs, doing about as much good as one swimmy in the middle of the ocean would do you.

And it felt like that moment where you’ve been riding along thinking Man, this ride is lame, then everything gets silent. And dark. And still.

And now you’re clutching the arm of the person next to you, thinking it was your dad’s but it actually belongs to a stranger, but you need something to clutch and you’re already committed to this arm, so you keep clutching. And you’re waiting in fear, in childhood terror, of what is to come. The tension and the impending doom are palpable. You can almost taste them.

This was going through my mind while I sat in silence on the metro. jurassicparkIt felt exactly like this moment I had on the Jurassic Park or Jaws ride at Universal Studios. I was waiting for the big drop, the plummet down a waterfall to the unnecessarily large splash below, the dinosaur to jump out at me, or a roar and breath of fire to come from behind my head and shoot goosebumps down my spine.

I closed my book and held on to my seat.

This idea – of the metro becoming a thrill ride and existing in a theme park (as if DC isn’t one in its own right) – made me laugh. Yes, in the middle of the silent metro I laughed out loud. And people stared. And the train revved its third rail connection and fired up the AC and conversations resumed.

Most of my fellow passengers who were focused on the silence like I was were probably running through scenarios in their minds of bombs, anthrax or ninjas. I wonder if they thought I was crazy, or not taking the situation seriously enough, when I started to laugh. I laughed like a child. Like a child in an amusement park (before the heat exhaustion set in).

I believe that moment was good for my soul. I also believe I will pursue a DC-themed amusement park with a metro-themed roller coaster. Instant gold. Who’s in?

“Tickets, Pleeease!” she shouts as she walks through the quiet, crowded train. “Please display your tickets!”

It’s such a loud, abrasive order from such a small person. The conductor on the 5:00 p.m. train out of Union Station is a small Puerto Rican woman, about five feet tall. She ties her hair in a tight bun just below her conductor’s cap. Her VRE coat and gloves are just a little too big. She might be wearing childrens’ sized shoes.

But her voice and that attitude are seven feet tall and consume the whole car. Her New York accent is infused with hints of Latina flare, and both combine to create a volume many could only dream of reaching.

I don’t think she’s actually angry all the time, but I shudder in fear everytime the car door opens and she parades down the aisle shouting “PLEASE display your tickets! Tickets PLEASE!” She always wakes me up from my ride-home nap. Some days I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep, in the hope that she looks at my ticket and walks by.

As she approaches each row, she looks for the tickets. Some people clip theirs to the seat in front of them, easily within her line of sight. Others clip their tickets to the lapel of their jackets or the top of their ID badge lanyards. Riders like me who are afraid of her just hold out their tickets for her to inspect.

If she comes to a row and can’t readily see a ticket, she gets impatient and says, “Ticket please!” Even if the man she’s talking to is sound asleep, “Sir! I need to see your ticket! Please have your ticket visible!”

Yesterday, I saw this scene:

Madam Conductor was standing on one side of the aisle, shouting to a man sitting on the other side:

“Ticket please!”

No response. The man continued to read the book sitting in his lap.

“Sir. Sir! Ticket please!”

Still no response. The man sitting in front of him was clearly afraid for both of their safety, so he turned around to nudge the man behind him. The man looked up from his book, then followed a pointing finger to Madam Conductor across the aisle. She looked at him with a glare of impatience and said again, “Sir, I need to see your ticket.”

He took his ticket from his jacket pocket to show her as he mouthed, “I’m deaf. Sorry.” He pointed to his ears and looked concerned that he might have just gotten in trouble.

Madam Conductor said thank you and moved on.

This is why everyone lives in fear of her. No one even knows her name, all her name tag says is “B.” I can only imagine what it stands for.

I’m afraid of her because some days she stares at my ticket longer than she does at everyone else’s. She examines it thoroughly and occasionally uses her mini flashlight for… well, probably to determine if my ticket is counterfeit.  But what I don’t get about this ritual is that I ride this train almost every single day. The same one. With the same conductor. And I sit in the same seat, visibly displaying the same legal, validated ticket.

I’m not sure why she singles me out, but I do know that I will never attempt to cross her path. Now that I have become familiar with this ticket-inspecting and shouting routine, I prepare myself for it before I get on the train in the evenings.

In the mornings, I find myself thanking the VRE staffing schedule for keeping her on the afternoon trains, so I am guranteed a peaceful morning ride. I get comfortable in my seat and fall asleep for the entire ride without displaying my ticket anywhere. Well, this used to be my morning routine, until one morning last week when I awoke from my slumber to the sound of Madam Conductor shouting to see tickets.

I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep that day, or any other day. And truthfully, it was like waking up with a nightmare as a small child – It just made me more afraid to ever go to sleep again.

I am ashamed of myself.

I’m usually a fast walker. Most of the time it’s not because I have somewhere to be in a hurry, I just don’t like being stuck in crowds or being forced to slow my pace by even slower people. And when I’m outside in the mornings, I usually walk fast to keep warm – not necessarily to get to work quicker.

Today when I got off the train at Union Station, I tried to walk fast (like usual) to the escalator to get into the station, so I could walk fast to the metro. But it didn’t work.

My legs would barely move, and when they did the rest of my body refused to follow. No – I wasn’t having a stroke or a heart attack and I don’t have any broken limbs or [seriously] pulled muscles. I’m just sore.

Let me tell you why I’m sore.

Yesterday was the debut of Sunday Fundays – a group of us got together and played kickball for a couple hours. It was a beautiful day and kickball was a great way to be outside with everyone. I even got a sunburn on my face. Hello, spring!

We all did pretty well; everyone got at least a base hit here and there, made plays in the outfield or spent some time on the pitcher’s mound. There were high-scoring innings, clutch double-plays and even a home run. I would say it was a great success.

Except now I’m sore from playing kickball. And I am ashamed of myself.

Even sitting at my desk at work right now, my rear end hurts every time I shift weight. I have to use my hands to pick up my leg in order to cross it over the other. I’ve been hobbling semi-crouched to the kitchen and back to refill my tea.

I am ashamed of myself. But I can’t wait to play again next weekend.